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Victory through defeat

Last Spring I could have looked at the candidate’s policy proposals in detail, but (as Mark Schmitt put it so well) within the campaign context, it’s not what the candidate says about the issues, it’s what the issues say about the candidate. It’s easy for analytical types (such as YHB) to fool themselves into thinking they are voting for a policy platform, but of course the moment the candidate takes office, those policy proposals will become subject to all kinds of changes. Which is as it should be. So my recollection of the public health policy and health finance debates in the primary is extremely vague: John Edwards was supporting something universal and relatively progressive, Hillary Clinton was supporting something not-quite-universal and not-quite-progressive, and Barack Obama was in the middle.

That may not have been true. That’s my recollection now of my impression at the time.

I bring up my vagueness now, because my impression of the current state of the debate is dependent on that earlier sense, which may be wrong. Be that as it may, I’m going to tell y’all about my current impression and then throw it open for y’all to get me back on track. Because, you know, it’s a blog.

Here’s the thing: I think Barack Obama is not very progressive on economic issues. There are aspects of governance where he is very radical, aspects where he is worrisomely Conservative (to me), but on economic issues he seems to be, well, happy with Larry Summers. You know? Bill Clinton-ish, not Teddy Kennedy-ish. By instinct and inclination, I mean. Of course, circumstances dictate the actual policies a person will support at any time. Bill Clinton had prosperity to deal with, and dealt with it accordingly; had he been president with ten percent unemployment and serious financial structure problems, he would have dealt with that differently, I suppose.

So I’m not convinced that Barack Obama was ever personally persuaded that the public option—essentially a Medicare for All option—was important to him. I don’t really know. It’s awfully tempting to try to read the minds of politicians and claim that people you like are really in favor of policies you like, even though they never support them and occasionally vote against them. It’s also tempting to claim that all of them are in the pockets of Big Bidness and have no principles or even preferences other than whatever gets them the most money for their next campaign. I try to avoid that, generally. Still, it seems to me as if the bill we’re going to wind up getting in October or so will be a lot like the bill the Barack Obama of the primaries would have liked: largely an extension of the status quo with enough government intervention to ease off the pressure for fundamental change of the resource-profit structure of the system.

This is infuriating to me, of course, because I would like to change the system altogether. The idea of a quote-unquote reform bill that seems designed to funnel money to the insurance companies seems outrageous to me. The idea that with a majority in the House and sixty fucking seats in the Senate and a Democratic President we still can’t nail the insurance companies to the wall is depressing. We’re not going to get a bigger majority in the Senate; it’s astonishing that we have twenty more than the other Party now. We’re unlikely to get Senators within the Party that are much further left; we’re certainly unlikely to get Senators from the other Party that are much further left.

Unless, of course, there is a basic change in the national debate.

Which is how it should work. When there’s a big change (and I suppose health finance reform counts as a big change, as it affects not only people’s health care but their employment conditions, mostly) the change has to be broad and deep. We have to talk to each other about it, rather than waiting for the candidates to direct it.

And yet… haven’t we been talking to each other about it for twenty years? I mean, isn’t the huge Democratic majority in part due to the national conversation about health finance coming around to the idea of nailing insurance companies to the wall? I’m not sure how much further we can go on that road. Hmph.

Anyway, I wasn’t going to whine about the bill in this note. The point of this note is that it seems to YHB that Barack Obama has an astonishing ability to make getting beaten in the legislature a useful step in getting the policy he wants. And on one hand, that’s clearly problematic for the Party and the future of the democracy. And on the other, he is getting Presidential policy through the legislature, which ain’t easy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.